How Google Earth Mapped 98% of the World

And how it overcame device constraints to bring it to you

Sarvesh Mathi
Published in
7 min readJan 30, 2020


Google Earth image of the lakes in the Great Sandy Desert, Australia.
Google Earth image of the lakes in the Great Sandy Desert, Australia. Source: Pandotrip

SSaroo Brierley was five years old when he was separated from his parents. He and his older brother, Guddu, took a train from their home to a city 70 km south. Saroo fell asleep on a bench at the station and when he woke up, his brother was gone.

The five-year-old boarded another train thinking his brother was on it. But at the end of the journey, he found himself in entirely new and unfamiliar territory. Saroo was one among the million daily passengers who pass through the largest railway complex in India, Howrah Station in the city of Kolkata, some 1,500 km from his home. After spending many homeless days in the train station, he eventually found himself in a government center for abandoned children. From there, the Brierley family from Australia eventually adopted him. Saroo spent the rest of his life in Australia, 10,000 kilometers away from home. But the quest to find his birth family never waned.

Saroo spent many hours on Google Earth tracking down his hometown. Not remembering the name, he instead relied on other hints. He drew a circle on the map to narrow his search and then looked for vague details he remembered: a station name starting with the letter B, a water tower, an overpass, and a ring road nearby.

“It was just like being Superman. You are able to go over and take a photo mentally and ask, ‘Does this match?’ And when you say, ‘No’, you keep on going and going and going,” Saroo told Google.

In 2012, 25 years after he lost his family, Saroo finally found them in an emotional and heartwarming reunion. His story received widespread media attention, both India and Australia, and was later made into the Oscar-nominated film Lion.

What is Google Earth?

Saroo’s story is one of the many inspiring stories of Google Earth — the 3D digital map representation of earth that allows users to zoom out as far as the whole globe and zoom in as close as the streets and buildings. It lets you visit the Taj Mahal while sitting on your couch, then circle the Burj Khalifa in Dubai the next minute. You can climb Uluru in Australia, and then pay a visit to the nearby lakes in the Great Sandy Deserts…